Important Poetry

One good thing about the gym that I go to is that people are always leaving behind old issues of Harper’s and The New Yorker, allowing me to cancel both of my subscriptions in exchange for getting them like a month or two late. Last week somebody left behind the September 2012 issue of The Sun (score!), and a piece of non-fiction called “Ten Days in November” by Eric Anderson caught my eye. In the first of the ten days, Anderson is addressing an Intro to Poetry class:

The worst thing you can do is talk about how important poetry is. In reality it isn’t all that important. It doesn’t save lives very often (except perhaps the lives of the poets themselves–a fact negated by all the poets that poetry has actually killed). It’s not often inspirational. It doesn’t topple regimes or bring justice. It’s not penicillin. It’s not timeless, because poets fall in and out of favor, and most poems disappear the moment after they’re written, and anyway the whole planet will be devoured by the sun in a few billion years, and when that happens, no one is going to run around screaming, The poetry! Save the Poetry!

The timing was great and it was lousy, because it was–I swear–the night before I planned to step in front of my own Intro Creative Writing class and try to convince them that poetry is indeed important. Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead–a piece of documentary poetics exposing the treachery and pathos surrounding the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster, 1930-1935–is my ultimate trump card for those students who think that the only kind of poetry is the personal expression kind and that all of it is just whining and that we’d all be better off excising the poetry unit from Intro to Creative Writing. I was simultaneously irate with Eric Anderson for hijacking my sermon … and more than a little worried that he was right.

The next day I shared the above quote with my classes and pitifully bartered with Anderson, suggesting that The Book of the Dead is at least as close as we can get to important poetry. But once we got to “Absolom,” a poem in which Rukeyser quotes from heartbreaking court documents to resurrect the voices of the victims, I realized I should have stuck to my sermon. I’ve taught The Book of the Dead to perhaps three hundred students in my time at Eastern Michigan, and perhaps five of them had heard of Hawk’s Nest–arguably the greatest industrial disaster in the history of our country–before our time together in the classroom. And nobody, not one of us, would ever have heard 17-year-old Shirley Jones’s words to his mother:

Mother, when I die,
I want you to open them up and
see if that dust killed me. Try to get compensation,
you will not have any way of making your living
when we are gone,
and the rest are going too.

To me, Anderson’s words come across as impoverished and selfish after reading a work like The Book of the Dead. It’s true that we could all dedicate our lives to scientific and medical causes that might keep our species alive long enough to not scream for the poetry when the earth is devoured by the sun–but this mindset looks at humans as numbers rather than individuals, and it ignores the idea that there are different types of health. Of course William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel” invaded my mind as I stood there in the gym:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

With Rukeyser we get the news–or history made news again–and the men who died miserably speak again to the living.

It strikes me now that this website, like teaching Rukeyser in the classroom, contributes to an act of re-resurrection for workers like Shirley Jones. “I shall give mouth to my son,” Rukeyser ends the poem “Absolom.” Perhaps this website can give an online mouth to Rukeyser.

What do you think? Is poetry–or any form of art–important?

5 Responses to Important Poetry

  1. Lauren Monn says:

    I think both Rukeyser and Anderson are, in their respective ways, attempting to answer that very question. For Anderson, obviously the answer is no. But for Rukeyser, poetry serves as a means to conceptualize and define the possible existence of “truth.” Thus, at least in my mind, the importance of poetry, art, etc becomes a subjective quality dictated by each individual’s own attitude/belief/value system. In History, we question whether the distance of time provides a frame of objectivity in order to look at our subject accurately. Or, whether this distance is problematic in preventing us from truly understanding what occurred in the past, because we will never experience the events that we study. This is even more complicated when looking at Book of the Dead. The question becomes is Rukeyser’s rendition accurate? Is it even possible to be accurate at all? At least to my understanding, this is the paradox surrounding reification. Is it even within our ability as human beings to “thingify” processes and ideas beyond physical scope? I believe these are the ideas Anderson is questioning, along with an added dimension concerning the value of physicality. Is it reasonable to even attempt to define things beyond human comprehension or is it best to stay within concrete limits of feasibility knowing the limitations of subjectivity? Book of the Dead is an attempt to use assumed “truth” (i.e. court documents, photographs, etc) to define the sheer amount of human suffering that went into creating Hawk’s Nest. These are of course problematic in themselves. Photographs are limited by frame and the capture of a single moment. Court documents, interview and personal statements are essentially assuming that the person dictating them is both willing and able to reconstruct past events. The question for me becomes not whether Rukeyser’s work is objective, but whether objectivity is possible at all. So I guess to actually answer your question, poetry is important, but in placing value on something that is working with ideas that cannot truly be physically manifested, I’m limited by the value I project into it. Poetry, like my comprehension of it, is limited by both the perspective of the writer and reader.

  2. Elisabeth Däumer says:

    Does the value, the importance, of poetry exist outside the people reading and using it? Often, when we refer to “objectivity,” we are gesturing toward something that is true no matter what we do with that truth or if we believe in it. Let’s say “gravity” is true even if some people might be tempted to say–as they do about evolution–“the jury is still out.” When Rukeyser says that “poetry” extends the document, I think she wants to get at another truth, not only the truth of “verifiable fact” (although that truth always interested her), but an additional truth–what might be called emotional or social truth. A truth to do with what we do with facts, how we relate to them, how we make them meaningful in our lives; a truth we experience but that cannot be “objectively” verified. And I think that’s where poetry comes in (or can come in).
    Often, when we contrast “objective” with “subjective” we lose sight of the interpersonal, the social dimension of “truth.” It doesn’t exist simply out there, as a fact, or subjectively inside our mind, but, if acknowledged, researched, responded to, “felt,” becomes a social force.

  3. Joe Sacksteder says:

    Wonderful replies. Yes, there are plenty of ways to problematize the objectivity of Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead.” For example, she organizes “Absolom” so that it sounds as if Dora Jones – the mother of Shirley – is the one giving the testimonial, when, in fact, the material from “Absolom” was compiled from other peoples’ court documents. Both Lauren and Elisabeth’s comments bring to mind Werner Herzog’s concept of “The Ecstatic Truth,” which I introduce at the beginning of my non-fiction unit just to problematize the genre categorization of non-fiction. Herzog describes the ecstatic truth as a deeper strata of truth that can only be reached by fabrication and stylization – which, of course, seems to be contradictory. This is similar to the differentiation Tim O’Brien draws in “The Things They Carried” between “the story truth” and “the happening truth.” Historians would get into trouble really quickly if they purposefully fabricated a so-called higher truth – which is possibly one reason Rukeyser wrote about Hawk’s Nest as a poet rather than as a journalist. Perhaps Rukeyser, Herzog, and O’Brien might agree that – in the case of “Absolom” – it’s truer than the truth to have Dora Jones give the testimonial? Dangerous ground here…

  4. Lauren Monn says:

    I think we’ve added a further dimension of viability here. Does Rukeyser’s work stand with other great social histories such as the The Odeyssey or the Aeneid? Can we place this work with others that attempt to frame the human experience regardless of factuality (or even plausibility?) Even science is situated in the perspective of the researcher determining what questions are important to ask. At least for me, the only way to really critically look at the Book of the Dead is to view objectivity and subjectivity as points on a continuum. Assuming that these two are not mutually exclusive, are we able to place Rukeyser’s work as one that oscillates between these two along with our extended “social value” scale? I would make the argument that Rukeyser employs a feminist multi-perspective approach in poeticising the Hawk’s Nest Disaster. To me at least, the reader is not pigeon-holed into feeling or thinking a certain way. Maybe I’m stretching here, but in a way applying multiple subjective views of the subject adds to the larger truth of the piece?

  5. Aaron Davis says:

    I wanted to reply first to Lauren Monn’s first post. I agree with some of her initial rationale but disagree with her conclusions: I believe there is absolute truth, it’s just as humans we cannot possibly comprehend all of this truth and we tend to disagree about it, i.e. some people are right and some people are simply wrong about certain things (myself included!). Poetry, and art itself, is a metaphor for this deeper truth. Since we do not know all of the truth, there obviously will be different aspects of the truth (or consequentially the opposite of truth) put forth into art, and depending on the individual’s own grasp of the truth will judge the art as thus. As far as Joe’s initial question on the relevance of art, what is more important than the pursuit of truth, or God if you will? I feel like I am in a way restating Elisabeth Däumer’s reply.
    With Joe’s reply, I would maybe question that re-purposing the truth can make it truer (how can something not be true if it already is?), but I would agree that a different kind of truth can be shown.

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